Finding Gemischter Satz and fleeing McShark: Austria April 2019
It’s so genteel. To wander, to take a streetcar to the near-suburbs, to vine-covered hills with the city center on the horizon. And then to give in while happy hearty Austrians in leather shorts serve farmer fare and bring restorative glasses of Gemischter Satz, or Riesling, or Gruner Veltliner. There are at least a dozen high quality wineries (and many ok ones) close enough for pedestrians to explore. To bask in sunshine, in courtyards mere feet from verdant abundant spring flora in irrepressible full bloom. To go for a stroll up hillocks made of loess soils that were not-too-long-ago (in geologic time) the banks of the Danube.
Where is that river, anyway? Maybe I should poke around some more. There are impressive museums in Vienna, and a thousand accouterments of refined indoor living available within strolling distance of this elegant hotel’s front door. Theaters, a hunting store with suitable rifles and attire for all stations of the landed gentry, an opera house facing a wurstel stand that serves sausages with cheese inside the sausage: still a genius idea. Bars everywhere playing jazz filtered through thick clouds of cigarette smoke, restaurants serving empanadas from Spain or vegetarian curries from Sri Lanka, wide quiet cobblestone streets lined by Haussmann-era palaces that at night immediately conjure The Third Man, Viennese Secession movement buildings made beautiful by the slightest of art nouveau touches, and in the same neighborhoods, mid-20th century quasi-Soviet concrete monstrosities sometimes still containing charming hidden courtyard gardens, ornamented with adjacently parked quirky Ladas in resplendent primary colors.
It’s a lot to ask for. Maybe more than one city deserves. It’s not hard to understand Vienna as the center of empire, all culture rolled upstream to this point. It’s easy to see Café Sperl as a den of zealots and philosophers, I’d talk for hours about literally anything to stay within its elegant booths looking out on passing streams of pedestrians dressed as students and construction workers and bees and flowerpots and most often as supremely confident stylish urbanites.
Today Vienna isn’t the center of anything. Its newfound provincialism occasionally pokes through the studied cool of the center city. Which is all the better for me. I’m too old, mismatched and threadbare to be comfortable in zeitgeist-y places. The tranquility, the space between people, the sound of streetcars and the ease of escape into little side-street universes make Vienna a favorite. I can drink in student bars at midnight (if I can hack through the smoke) and nobody minds my presence. Locals are even friendly. They aren’t over it, sick of tourist faces.
The Naschtmarkt still feels like Vienna’s front room. Families are enjoying large platters of beautiful grilled seafood. There are impressive displays of locally-made weinkase cheese, salami, so many kinds of ham. An overabundance of good local wine. Why not drink Knoll Smaragd Riesling with octopus salad? The dinner will cost less than a normal night out in my exponentially more provincial hometown. There are stands selling goulash and Medjool dates, seed cheese and pumpkin seed oil, rye bread, silken tofu, candy. I have to walk several city blocks before settling on any purchase. On a Monday in April many stalls close early, but a serviceably large block of the market remains open. People smoke (it’s a theme) and drink white wine, push strollers and shopping trolleys, meander, presumably home from work. What professions keep these elegant city dwellers occupied from 8 to 5? How many architects and designers could one small metropolis contain? Are bureaucrats in Vienna able to afford chic attire and asymmetrical haircuts? I have so many questions, and no local source for answers.
There are eyesores. Mostly poor attempts at franchises with English words-as-names, Rock and Roll Burger Bar, Charmy Wine Café, etc. Something about German as a first language seems to urge the misguided, almost-accurate, winceable misappropriation of our lexicon. My favorite/least-favorite is McShark. In Durham that would be a good place to eat fried fish. In Vienna it’s a hub for off-brand Mc-Geniuses to fix your Apple gear. It seems popular. I’m afraid of it. At the climax of my Third Man nightmare sequence, will it be a McShark tailing me through the city’s sewers and abandoned amusement parks?